I posted some on this at Double X, but I thought it would be interesting to expand on here. This article in the LA Times is about when it’s okay to let your kids quit an activity, but what really jumped out at me about it was how much children’s sports are portrayed as this miserable hellhole of competition where only the toughest survive.
But the intensity of the conditioning was unlike anything Bob had experienced. The boys did up-downs until their faces turned purple. They were forced to run laps holding hands as a punishment. While there was an emphasis on teamwork — in theory, football is supposed to be the ultimate team sport — there was a profound absence of positive reinforcement.
So after 13 weeks, and just before the season ended, my son did what his gut told him to do: He quit.
“It’s not fun,” he said wearily. “And I’m tired of the coaches making me feel badly about myself.”
Awesome, I thought. Bob’s chances just shot up of being allergic to athletic activity for the rest of his life because of these associations. Maybe he’ll get lucky and this experience won’t sour him on his own image of his body as an athletic entity. But if he’s like many to most Americans who had negative experiences with jock culture as young people, his insecurity about not being perfect out of the gate will hound him, and make all future attempts to pick up exercise feel futile and disheartening. When his doctor tells him he better pick up some exercise routine or else, he’ll join a gym or try bicycling, but exposure to the jocks in that environment will dredge up the same negative associations and feelings of inadequacy, and he’s quite likely to give up. Or, if he’s lucky, he’ll fall in with people who see working out as a competition only with yourself, and who see sports mainly as a way to relax and have fun, and he’ll be able to get into the groove. But he’ll always be a little behind where he wished he’d be, where someone who’d spent his whole life doing athletic things would be.
Sorry to sound so bleak, but few things can create mental blocks for people like being labeled as children—it often takes decades for adults to realize that they actually aren’t bad at math or incapable of being athletic, as they were told as children. If they ever learn. Which is exactly what the LA Times writer discovered.
The results of the study also send a strong message to coaches who humiliate children: The things they do and say can turn a child off from team sports for years.
Although the study was designed to examine how instructors made sports fun for kids, the responses focused more on what coaches did wrong. Strean, in fact, says he was shocked by the emotional responses he received.
“The so-called physical education that I received as a kid robbed me of the joy of physical activity for many years,” one participant wrote. “It did nothing whatever to establish habits of balance in life between the cerebral and the physical. Instead, the focus seemed to be on achieving excellence in a competitive setting. It destroyed my physical confidence.”
And these pee wee coaches acting like they’re coaching the fucking NFL isn’t doing anyone any favors.
In his four years as a softball coach, Charlie Hutchinson, a father of two daughters, has had to counsel his share of parents whose kids want to drop out.
“In most cases, kids want to quit because they feel they are not good at something,” Hutchinson says. “We tend to not want our kids to suffer. I think it’s part of the culture where everyone gets a trophy. Parents should make them stick with it. You made a commitment? You should finish it.”
Hutchinson, however, agrees with Strean that coaches need to “stop worrying about winning and start having fun,” he says. “How else do you build a love for something?”
That he doesn’t see the contradiction there is interesting. It’s such a truism that there’s something wrong with rewarding kids for simply getting out there and trying, but when it comes to sports, I would actually say that’s a critical thing to do. Because you know what? When you’re an adult and trying to work up enthusiasm for putting on your sneakers and going for a run, you’re not going to get there convincing yourself it doesn’t count unless you’re an Olympian. You need to reward yourself just for getting out there and trying.
You have to ask yourself what we’re trying to get out of juvenile sports. Is it there to teach kids that winning is everything, and that anything short of that is utter failure? Are we using it simply as a system to find the one in thousands that will become a professional athlete? Or is it there to teach about sportsmanship, camaraderie, and inculcate a love of physical activity that will serve you well your entire life? If it’s the latter, then the everyone-gets-a-trophy attitude is actually the best approach. Just because everyone gets a trophy doesn’t mean you can’t have competition—winners, I suspect, will always get better trophies. But if people who aren’t the absolute best get no positive reinforcement, of course they drop out. We’re human beings—we thrive on positivity and reward, not despair and failure.